Confession time: Until last week I had never read Looking for Alaska. That’s right. You heard…er, read me. Even better, up until the week before that I had never even wanted to read Looking for Alaska. As you have gathered by the existence of this post, this has now changed. Why? Because there’s nothing like seeing an adaptation to get me cracking on the original source material before you can say, ‘The book was better’. And…I was not a huge fan. The word ‘overrated’ may have been mentioned. With that in mind, I have something controversial to say.
The mini-series is better.
Yep, that’s right, and I’ll tell you why.
* * Spoilers for the Looking for Alaska novel & TV series follow**
Fleshed Out Characters
The LFA series consists of eight episodes, each about 50 or so minutes in length. One of the biggest issues I had with the novel was that all the characters were majorly lacking in development. With the extra room to breathe, the series rectified this substantially. While Takumi still gets shafted in terms of screen time later on, Lara, the Colonel, the Eagle, Jake and Dr Hyde all benefit immensely. They’re given more expansive histories and SO MUCH greater emotional depth. Instead of casual blips popping in and out of Pudge’s periphery whenever the plot demands it, they feel more like actual characters which makes the dramatic moments of the story resonate far better.
While we’re talking characters, as someone who tackled the series first and book second, the treatment of Alaska in the novel is a travesty. She’s a teen-boy fantasy and pretty much there only to add to the male characters’ stories. I mean, the girl dies and even then she can’t escape Pudge having dreams about her “luminously full” breasts. He also later claims he’s sometimes glad she’s dead because it feels ‘pure’. I honestly wanted to slap someone. The show makes massive improvements here, too (thank goodness). By shifting the perspective beyond Pudge’s head, we get to see Alaska as a person rather than just an object to lust after. She has moments of reflection, meaningful conversations with other characters (there’s one between Alaska and Dr. Hyde which I love) and dreams about the future. More importantly, you really feel her loneliness and lowered sense of self-worth. It’s heartbreaking to watch but gives her death much greater impact.
Plot & Tone
For lovers of the book, you’ll be glad to know that the early segments are almost perfectly translated to screen with very few changes. Some exchanges of dialogue are even lifted word for word. Yet, as the series goes on, things do start to deviate but for the better:
- There’s more time in early episodes devoted to the prank war with the Weekday Warriors adding humour and levity to balance out the sadder tone of the later episodes
- We see more of Alaska and Jake’s relationship including one of her trips to visit him which further shows off Alaska’s state of mind
- The ‘Alaska is a rat’ storyline has more weight, especially on Alaska and the Colonel’s friendship
- Pudge’s relationship with Lara is better fleshed out (poor girl, she deserved better)
- Pudge’s attraction to Alaska is more two-sided – Alaska displays clearer feelings for Pudge than in the novel and regret in pushing him away. This makes their eventual coming together feel less impulsive and more romantic
Yet, despite these changes, the show always returns to common and important plot points from the book such as Thanksgiving, ‘best-day-worst-day’ and ‘to-be-continued’. Fans will be equally happy to know that the ending of the book also remains intact in all its ambiguous and frustrating glory, complete with an overly long closing monologue from Miles worthy of a John Green novel.
Hitting Those Hard Themes
While the LFA novel touches on things like privilege and depression, the series dives deeper into these ideas as well as themes of isolation and loneliness. In my opinion, it’s when the series is at its strongest. For example, the fleshing out of Chip’s story gives us a great look at both socioeconomic and racial privilege which greatly boosts our understanding of why he’s constantly angry. The book and series also deal heavily with grief and the associated guilt. Their approach to it is very similar but again, the show has the wiggle room to take it just that bit further and expand it to more characters such as Alaska’s father, Dr Hyde and the Eagle.
- The music in the series is fantastic. For those looking for some early 2000s nostalgia, you’ll have a blast. The playlist includes a few old-school tracks and some different sounding (but good) covers of older tracks.
- The casting is great. While the actors may not all physically resemble their characters, they fit the spirit of them fabulously. Kristine Froseth as Alaska is fantastic and although I’ve previously seen her in The Society and Sierra Burgess, she really shines here. I also have to mention Denny Love as the Colonel who I officially adore with all my heart for his ability to make me laugh and break my heart.
- The characters, unfortunately, still often talk in that sometimes wanky way not typical of normal people. But this is John Green after all.
- Watching the Colonel get kicked out of consecutive basketball matches is my favourite part of the series
- As a massive The O.C. fan, I loved all the little extras Josh Schwartz threw into the series e.g. Pudge’s first sight of Alaska replicating Ryan seeing Marissa
As I mentioned above, I find the Looking for Alaska Hulu series far stronger and enjoyable than John Green’s original novel. Still, I feel as though this is an adaptation that both lovers of the book, despite its changes, and non-book readers/lovers (like me) will connect with and like as well.
AS AN ADAPTATION: Solid. Same opening, same ending, some additions & jumbled around plot points in the middle.
AS A SERIES: 7/10 – good, would probably re-watch.